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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: Records about Slavery

This tutorial is meant to orient and direct users to materials that document the history of slavery in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections Library.

Records about Slavery

Most of the materials about slavery in the Southern Historical Collection are handwritten documents. However, other formats in the collection provide different representations of slavery, such as still image, moving image, and sound. Below is a list of collections that contain some of those formats. You can identify relevant material in these collections the same way as you would in a manuscript collection. Since the collection is already identified here you can jump straight to Searching in Boxes & Folders

*Note that some of the materials listed here will require the production of a listening or viewing copy which may not be available for same-day access. Check the finding aid for each collection and plan accordingly before your visit to the Research Room.

Manuscript and Document Types

There is a great variety in the types of documents that can provide information about enslaved people. See the Key Terms page of the tutorial which includes a gallery of images representing different types of documents and where to find them in the collections. Be sure to search for the alternative terms that are suggested as well.

Photographs (Still Image)

  • Blackford Family Papers, 1742-1200. The bulk of the collection includes correspondence of three generations of the Blackford family, a prominent white Virginia family, as well as many photographs including one of an enslaved woman referred to as "M'am Peggy" (Image Folder PF-1912).
  • Henry Clay Warmoth Papers, 1798-1953. Photographs include the Warmoth family with two unidentified African American women (Image P-752/49) and another of the white Warmoth family with an "all black army" (Image P-725/51). The family photograph has been digitized and is available online.

Films (Moving Image)

  • Harry Lee Harllee Films, 1927-1945. The collection consists of 41 reels of silent, black and white, color and tinted 16mm motion picture film, shot, edited, and titled by Harry Lee Harllee. Subjects include members of the Harllee, Quattlebaum, Blackwell, and Dargan families including individuals who were formerly enslaved by those families. Prominent places include North Carolina and South Carolina, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens in Charleston, S.C, as well as Washington, D.C., the Florida Keys, and Elon College, N.C., in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Many of the films are extensively edited and contain numerous titles identifying people and places. 
  • Prudhomme Family Papers, 1768-1997. The collection includes a variety of materials documenting plantation life, courtship and marriage, sickness, social activities, travel, and general news of the Prudhomme family. Of note are audio cassettes and films documenting the family's activities, plantation life, and the formerly enslaved people who remained on the Prudhomme family estate. 

Oral Histories

Note that oral histories post-date the time of enslavement, and often document the recollections of those who were enslaved or the descendants of those who were enslaved. They are a rich source because they can provide a first hand account, or an account that has been passed down through generations.

  • Federal Writers' Project Papers, 1936-1940.  These papers include the life histories of about 1,200 individuals, many of them African Americans. They describe life in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. There is a partial index to the many occupations of those interviewed. This collection is digitized.
  • Theodore Rosengarten Oral History Interviews and Other Recordings, 1971-1977. The collection consists of 47 audiocassette tapes most of which contain interviews conducted by a white scholar Theodore Rosengarten with African American farmer Ned Cobb and other members of the Cobb family. These interviews were used as the basis of Rosengarten's book All God's Dangers, which describes Cobb's life as a sharecropper in east-central Alabama, his involvement with Alabama Sharecroppers Union, his 12-year imprisonment for shooting at sheriff's deputies intent on seizing a neighbor's livestock, and his life after leaving prison. Some of this collection has been digitized.


  • Voices of the Enslaved in Wilson Special Collections LibGuide. This guide compiles the writings of people who were enslaved in the American South focusing primarily on handwritten documents in the Wilson Special Collections Library but also lists print and published material of interest at Duke University and the Library of Congress. Most of the letters written by enslaved people can be found in the Southern Historical Collection. This guide may not include all of the materials reflecting enslaved voices from the collections at Wilson Library, but is intended to serve as a starting point for research.
  • North American Slave Narratives. This site is a part of the Documenting the American South initiative. The site is a collection of books and articles that document the individual and collective story of African Americans struggling for freedom and human rights in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. This collection includes all the existing autobiographical narratives of fugitive and former slaves published as broadsides, pamphlets, or books in English up to 1920. Also included are many of the biographies of fugitive and former slaves and some significant fictionalized slave narratives published in English before 1920.